Have we ever wondered how we will be used if we are disqualified from ministry? Have we ever wondered, “what if I can’t go overseas because of my health”? Or “what if this or that happens, can I still be used by God?” I often think this way because of my health, but the reason for this blog is to refocus on our purpose. Today’s missionary attended Yale to be a pastor, it was required to have a degree at that time. God’s plan was different for him. This missionary was expelled from Yale, only to fall right into God’s will; to not be a pastor, but a missionary to the Indians. Today’s post is about a missionary named David Brainerd. And God used him mightily!
David Brainerd lived a short life, (29 years) and those 29 years were filled with complete suffering. However, in the moments of despair, God displayed his all sustaining power and glory. There is a reason why we as believers face trials and suffering. Here the words of David Brainerd:
Taken from Desiring God’s autobiographies: Oh, That I May Never Loiter On My Heavenly Journey!
Brainerd struggled with almost constant sickness.
He had to drop out of college for some weeks because he had begun to cough up blood in 1740. In May of 1744 he wrote, “Rode several hours in the rain through the howling wilderness, although I was so disordered in body that little or nothing but blood came from me (p. 247).”
Now and again he would write something like, “In the afternoon my pain increased exceedingly; and was obliged to betake myself to bed … Was sometimes almost bereaved of the exercise of my reason by the extremity of pain.” (p. 253) In August of 1746 he wrote, “Having lain in cold sweat all night, I coughed much bloody matter this morning, and was under great disorder of body, and not a little melancholy.” (p. 420) In September he wrote, “Exercised with a violent cough and a considerable fever; had no appetite to any kind of food; and frequently brought up what I ate, as soon as it was down; and oftentimes had little rest in my bed, by reason of pains in my breast and back: was able, however, to rode over to my people, about two miles, every day, and take some care of those who were then at work upon a small house for me to reside in amongst the Indians (p. 430).”
In May of 1747 at Jonathan Edwards’ house the doctors told him that he had incurable consumption and did not have long to live. (p. 447) In the last couple of months of his life the suffering was incredible. September 24: “In the greatest distress that ever I endured having an uncommon kind of hiccough; which either strangled me or threw me into a straining to vomit.” (p. 469) Edwards comments that in the week before he died, “He told me it was impossible for any to conceive of the distress he felt in his breast. He manifested much concern lest he should dishonor God by impatience under his extreme agony; which was such that he said the thought of enduring it one minute longer was almost insupportable.” And the night before he died he said to those around him that it was another thing to die than people imagined (pp. 475-476).
What strikes the reader of these diaries is not just the severity of Brainerd’s suffering in the days before antibiotics and pain killers, but especially how relentless the sickness was. It was almost always there. And yet he pressed on with his work.
Brainerd struggled with relentlessly recurring depression.
Brainerd came to understand more fully from his own experience the difference between spiritual desertion and the disease of melancholy. So his later judgments about his own spiritual condition are probably more careful than the earlier ones. But however one assesses his psychological condition, he was tormented again and again with the blackest discouragements. And the marvel is that he survived and kept going at all.
Brainerd said eh had been this way from his youth (p. 101). But he said that there was a difference between the depression he suffered before and after his conversion. After his conversion there seemed to be a rock of electing love under him that would catch him, so that in his darkest times he could still affirm the truth and goodness of God, even though he couldn’t sense it for a season (pp. 93, 141, 165, 278).
But it was bad enough nevertheless. Often his distress was owing to the hatred of his own remaining sinfulness. Thursday, November 4, 1742. “Tis distressing to feel in my soul that hell of corruption which still remains in me.” (p. 185) Sometimes this sense of unworthiness was so intense that he felt cut off from the presence of God. January 23, 1743. “Scarce ever felt myself so unfit to exist, as now: I saw I was not worthy of a place among the Indians, where I am going … None knows, but those that feel it, what the soul endures that is sensibly shut out from the presence of God: Alas, ’tis more bitter than death (pp. 195-6)!”
He often called his depression an kind of death. I counted at least 22 places in the Diary where he longed for death as a freedom from his misery. For example, Sunday, February 3, 1745. “My soul remember ‘the wormwood and the gall’ (I might almost say hell) of Friday last; and I was greatly afraid I should be obliged again to drink of that ‘cup of trembling’, which was inconceivably more bitter than death, and made me long for the grave more, unspeakably more, than for hid treasures.” (p. 285) sunday, December 16, 1744. “Was so overwhelmed with dejection that I knew not how to live: I longed for death exceedingly: My soul was ‘sunk in deep waters,’ and ‘the floods’ were ready to ‘drown me’: I was so much oppressed that my soul was in a kind of horror (p. 278).”
It caused him compounded misery that his mental distress hindered his ministry and his devotion. Wednesday, March 9, 1743. “Rode 16 miles to Montauk, and had some inward sweetness on the road, but something of flatness and deadness after I came there and had seen the Indians: I withdrew and endeavored to pray, but found myself awfully deserted and left, and had an afflicting sense of my vileness and meanness.” (p. 199) At times he was simply immobilized by the distresses and couldn’t function anymore. Tuesday, September 2, 1746. “Was scarce ever more confounded with a sense of my own unfruitfulness and unfitness of my work, than now. Oh, what a dead, heartless, barren, unprofitable wretch did I now see myself to be! My spirits were so low, and my bodily strength so wasted, that I could do nothing at all. At length, being much overdone, lay down on a buffalo skin; but sweat much of the whole night (pp. 423f.).”
It is simply amazing how often Brainerd pressed on with the practical necessities of his work in the face of these waves of discouragement. This has no doubt endeared him to many a missionary who know first hand the kinds of pain he endured.
Brainerd struggled with loneliness.
He tells of having to endure the profane talk of two strangers one night in April, 1743 and says, “Oh, I longed that some dear Christian knew my distress (p. 204)!” A month later he says, “Most of the talk I hear is either Highland Scotch or Indian. I have no fellow Christian to whom I might unbosom myself and lay open my spiritual sorrows, and with whom I might take sweet counsel in conversation about heavenly things, and join in social prayer.” (p. 207) This misery made him sometimes shrink back from going off on another venture. Tuesday, May 8, 1744. “My hear sometimes was ready to sink with the thoughts of my work, and going alone in the wilderness, I knew not where (p. 248).”
In December, 1745 he wrote a letter to his friend Eleazar Wheelock and said, “I doubt not by that time you have read my journal through you’ll be more sensible of the need I stand in of a companion in travel than ever you was before (p. 584).” But he didn’t just want any kind of person of course. He wanted a soul companion. Many of us can empathize with him when he says, “There are many with whom I can talk about religion: but alas, I find few with whom I can talk religion itself: But, blessed be the Lord, there are some that love to feed on the kernel rather than the shell (p. 292).”
But Brainerd was alone in his ministry to the end. The last 19 weeks of his life Jerusha Edwards, Jonathan Edwards’ 17 year old daughter, was his nurse and many speculate that there was deep love between them. But in the wilderness and in the ministry he was alone, and could only pour out his soul to God. And God bore him and kept him going.
Brainerd struggled with immense external hardships.
He describes his first mission station at Kaunaumeek in May, 1743: “I live poorly with regard to the comforts of life: most of my diet consists of boiled corn, hasty pudding, etc. I lodge on a bundle of straw, and my labor is hard and extremely difficult; and I have little experience of success to comfort me.” (p. 207) In August he says, “In this weak state of body, (I) was not a little distressed for want of suitable food. Had no bread, nor could I get any. I am forced to go or send ten or fifteen miles for all the bread I eat; and sometimes ’tis moldy and sour before I eat it, if I get any considerable quantity … But through divine goodness I had some Indian meal, of which I made little cakes and fried them. Yet felt contented with my circumstances, and sweetly resigned to God (pp. 213-214).”
He says that he was frequently lost in the woods and was exposed to cold and hunger (p. 222). he speaks of his horse being stolen or being poisoned or breaking a leg (pp. 294, 339). He tells about how the smoke from a fireplace would often make the room intolerable to his lungs and he would have to go out into the cold to get his breath, and then could not sleep through the night (p. 422).
But the struggle with external hardships, as great as they were, was not his worst struggle. He had an amazing resignation and even rest it seems in many of these circumstances. He knew where they fit in his Biblical approach to life:
Such fatigues and hardship as these serve to wean me more from the earth; and, I trust, will make heaven the sweeter. Formerly, when I was thus exposed to cold, rain, etc., I was ready to please myself with the thoughts of enjoying a comfortable house, a warm fire, and other outward comforts; but now these have less place in my heart (through the grace of God) and my eye is more to God for comfort. In this world I expect tribulation; and it does not now, as formerly, appear strange to me; I don’t in such seasons of difficulty flatter myself that it will be better hereafter; but rather think how much worse it might be; how much greater trials others of God’s children have endured; and how much greater are yet perhaps reserved for me. Blessed be God that he makes (=is) the comfort to me, under my sharpest trials; and scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror or melancholy; but they are attended frequently with great joy (p. 274).”
So in spite of the terrible external hardships that Brainerd knew, he pressed on and even flourished under these tribulations that led to the kingdom.
The reason for our suffering is for God’s glory! David Brainerd pressed on to look past his suffering and look unto eternal glory!
As I reflect on this missionary today, I often wonder, “Am I prepared to have no control?”. Are you willing to let go of your own control and let God use you (me)? Whether it means a short life like David Brainerd, or a long life discipling others overseas or here in the States, we must be willing to relinquish all and rest in God’s will. He doesn’t promise us safety, but security! it is for His glory!
Grace and Peace